Commentary by Artists or Critics: The Emperor Jones

Commentary by Artists and Critics: The Emperor Jones

“On one hand, this 1920 one-act play is a brilliant piece of expressionistic drama and an unstinting — and weirdly timeless — exploration of the unshakable nature of personal history and how the exploited turn into exploiters with discomforting ease.

On the other, O’Neill’s story of Brutus Jones, train conductor turned despotic ruler of a West Indian island, is a conspicuous example of ignorant stereotyping that would be eschewed and forgotten had its author not gone on to pen some of the greatest American dramas of the last century.”
–Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, January 10, 2009

Though scholarly critics question the racial implications of The Emperor Jones, theatre critics have heralded the piece time and again throughout its staging history. Michael Billington, the current theatre critic for the Guardian, claimed the work to be “a historic landmark and a shattering piece of theatre.” His reaction is truly reflective of the praise the piece has received since its first staging in November of 1920. Originally staged at the Playwright’s Theatre in New York City, O’Neill’s play changed to a larger venue and ran for 204 performances.

When the show first premiered, O’Neill immediately received critical acceptance from the New York Times. Theatre Critic Alexander Woollcott hailed the text as “an extraordinarily striking and dramatic study of panic and fear” (Woollcott, The New O’Neill Play). Woollcott’s accolades carried over to the performance of Charles S. Gilpin who played Brutus Jones and was complemented for his “powerful and imaginative” performance. Woollcott commented that the Provincetown Players were lucky to finally have an actor of such quality. Though most of the review was positive, Woollcott heavily criticized the production qualities of the show. He states that the play “is so clumsily produced that its presentation consists largely of long, unventilated intermissions interspersed with fragmentary scene (changes).” After the change of venue later in the run, Woollcott does mention the improvement of the scene changes, however.

When the (in)famous Wooster Group took up O’Neill’s script in the 1990’s, they (or course) put quite the spin on the staging. Kate Valk stared as Brutus Jones in this production. Aside from the gender bent casting, the Wooster Group added one more slight difference: Ms. Valk played Brutus in blackface.

Kate Valk as Brutus Jones
Kate Valk as Brutus Jones. Photo by Paula Court.

The show played for over ten years around the world, receiving varied reaction from the audiences present. In 1997, the Chicago Tribune reported the audience as feeling “rather uncomfortable, actually” (Achy Obejas). Though audience reaction varied, the production as a whole was viewed with critical acclaim by the likes of the New York Times, The Guardian, and the LA Times.

In addition to its theatrical success, O’Neill’s text itself has often been the topic of scholarly debate. The themes scholarly critics most commonly analyze in the text are race, identity, the use of Expressionism, and perhaps most frequently the presence of Jungian psychology. Cambridge professor Michele Mendelssohn explains and summarizes recent textual scholarly criticism of The Emperor Jones in her essay Reconsidering Race, Language and Identity in The Emperor Jones. While many recent authors have been commenting on the importance of the psychological, Mendelssohn claims that though the psychological factors are influential and present, that perhaps the more pressing matter comes from racial concerns of language and motivation.

“Consider the ways in which language and identity are colored by race. Jones’ desire to associate himself with white culture stems from his conflicting feelings of being both colonizer and colonized. Jones uses language as a means of controlling and reinforcing the hierarchy of social relations within his colony—but what happens when he loses his language and way?” (20).

Mendelssohn is not alone in her attempt to bring the arguments about The Emperor Jones out of a focus solely on race and . Carl E. Rollyson, Jr. writes about the importance of Jones’ identity crisis in his essay The Drama of Self-Transcendence. Rollyson comments on Jones’ change in confidence as he wanders the jungle stating that he eventually “becomes fused with the collective experience of his race” (124).

Mendelssohn’s essay confronts arguments of several critics, especially those in the realms of racial analytics. She acknowledges the work done before hers (primarily of Thomas D Pawley) that solidifies O’Neill’s work as one of racial stereotypes and blatant racism. She dismisses the work of Edward Shaughnessy, who claims that by the end of the play Brutus Jones’ race becomes “irrelevant” (Shaughnessy in Mendelssohn, 20). Mendelssohn argues that Jones displays his colonized past in his clear and subjugating colonization.

“O’Neill dramatizes the plight of a hybrid of the first and third worlds, a man whose identity is oxymoronic: he is colonizer and colonized, African-American but neither African nor American. O’Neill eschews a facile opposition between white and black and black and suggests that the boundaries between both are not distance but painfully permeable. In the respect, The Emperor Jones dramatizes the grey, the blurring and bleeding of Brutus Jones’s identity” (27).


–John Knapp

Works Cited:
Abdo, Diya M. “The Emperor Jones: A Struggle For Individuality.” Eugene O’neill Review (Eugene O’neill Review) 24.1/2 (2000): 28-42. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 3 Apr. 2014.

Court, Paula. 2006. New York. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Mendelssohn, Michèle. “Reconsidering Race, Language And Identity In The Emperor Jones.” Eugene O’neill Review (Eugene O’neill Review) 23.1/2 (1999): 19-30. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web. 5 Apr. 2014.

Obejas, Achy. “Wooster Group Stuns The Crowd'” Chicago Tribune 17 Nov. 1997. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Rollyson, Carl E., Jr. Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill. Ed. James J. Martine. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1984. 123-37. Print.

Woollcott, Alexander. “The New O’Neill Play.” The New York Times 07 Nov. 1920. Web. 10 April. 2014.